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Leadership Principles for Engineering and Product Leaders

February 19, 2021  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott · 6 min read

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Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

This is the first post in a three-part series on leadership principles for product and tech executives. As with any principle, these are meant to help guide and focus technology executives on the behaviors, mindset and approaches necessary to build and successfully scale a team of any size – from hypergrowth startup to Global 1000 juggernaut.

Our leadership principles are a mash-up of multiple sources spanning the military, private and public sectors including:

  • Those that I shamelessly “borrowed” from the US Army’s Leadership Principles, first published in 1948 and included thereafter in FM22-100.  Principles 1 through 8 are inspired by 8 of the Army’s 11 leadership principles.
  • Work by academic and applied researchers in executive leadership and change management, including John Kotter, Jim Collins and Richard Boyatzis.
  • Personal research inspired by my doctoral and post-doctoral studies on successful and unsuccessful venture-backed teams as well as empirical observations of the combined AKF team spanning well over a decade of client value creation.

The three posts bundle our principles thematically.  The first four leadership principles have a theme of “self” – what we can do with our behaviors and approaches to grow and become better leaders.  Without further ado, let’s dive into the first set of four (out of a total of 10) principles.


I. Know Yourself and Seek Self Improvement

What it is

Make no mistake – knowing oneself is hands down the hardest principle to “get right”.  Cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, attentional bias, and the Dunning-Kruger effect impede our ability to accurately know ourselves; and accurate self-knowledge is a critical antecedent to successful improvement.  Without constant attention, it is easy to get sidetracked and think we are better, deeper and broader than we truly are.

Some military training programs seek to strip everything away from an individual such that the person is forced to reckon with and understand their own limitations.  While sometimes successful, these environments are not perfect in their outcomes.  Moreover, how many executives can afford two or more months away from work to be stripped of identity and “regrown”?  Not many.

What you can do to improve

  • Anonymous, 360-degree reviews are a great place to start.  Understanding how others perceive us is an important step in understanding how we must improve to achieve organizational outcomes.  Coaches are another great source of growth help.  “Everyone needs a coach” is one of my favorite lines; even if you truly are the best at what you do a great coach can help make you better. 
  • Surround yourself with people who will speak truth to power.  Most executives neither want this nor do this.  While I am in no way perfect, I have focused on this my entire life.  Believe me – it is painful to hire folks who are unafraid to tell you how screwed up you are.  Luckily, AKF colleagues like Tom Keeven, Mike Fisher and Heather Abbott have never had a problem doing exactly that.  As long as you keep your ears and mind open to their feedback, growth is inevitable.

II. Be Technically and Tactically Proficient (Army Leadership Principle)

What it is

This is likely both broader and less “deep” than you think.  Engineering and product executives are the glue between the business and customers.  As such, the combined team needs to translate business imperatives into actionable product and technical activities.  Further, they need to explain in business (financial) terms the reasoning behind both product and technology direction.

To be effective, engineering and product leaders need to be knowledgeable in not only the tools, approaches and terms of their trade – they need to understand how businesses operate broadly and how their business must run deeply.  Depth in both product and engineering is required, as is an appropriate understanding of business strategy formulation, financial statements, marketing and accounting. 

What you can do to improve


The path you take to improve largely depends upon your background.  The two most common paths for tech and product executives and associated suggestions for improvement are below:

  1. Tech/Product executive from either engineering or product management backgrounds
    • Enroll in business and finance classes to broaden your business experience.  I strongly suggest an MBA.
    • If from a tech background, additionally seek product management training such as that provided by SVPG or through platforms like Coursera.
    • If from a product management background, consider AKF Partners’ CTO bootcamp and/or take software engineering classes from Coursera and the like.
  2. Tech/Product executive from a business background.
  3. It is an absolute necessity that you gain significant experience understanding both technology and product management.  You likely have neither.  AKF Partners, SVPG and Coursera (as well as many other education platforms) offer this training.


III. Seek Responsibility and Take Responsibility for Your Actions (Army Leadership Principle)

What it is

Seeking responsibility is self-explanatory; the greatest leaders we know thrive on getting things done inside and outside of their functional domain.

Our take on “taking responsibility” is simple.  Great leaders give organizations and subordinates credit for success and accept ownership for failure themselves.  This is not to say that they do not also privately hold others accountable or remove underperforming individuals; they absolutely do that (see how great leaders approach their organizations through weeding, feeding, and seeding https://akfpartners.com/growth-blog/seed-feed-weed).  When great leaders are asked why something failed, they first recognize their culpability.  An example answer to the foregoing question from a great leader may sound like “I didn’t set up the right goals and objectives, didn’t monitor progress as well as needed, and didn’t ensure the team was constructed with the right skills and here’s what I am doing about it…”.

Contrast the above answer with the following: “Marty just wasn’t the right person and I’m replacing him”.  The former shows ownership and accountability, the latter is what we like to call a “Kiss up, Kick down” leader and is just the opposite.

What you can do to improve

  • Be humble and understand that “This isn’t about you.”  This advice is borrowed from the concepts of transformational leadership and Jim Collins’ Level 5 leadership.
  • Always own and explain failures in personal terms.  Start with “I”, focusing on what YOU could have done differently and how YOU are responsible.
  • Always give credit for success to the team and individuals on the team who helped create it.  Your job is to be an enabler, facilitator, and leader of success – not to be an individual contributor.

IV. Lead by Example (from the Army Leadership Principle “Set the Example”)

What it is

Put simply, this is modeling the behaviors and actions you expect to see reflected and emulated in your team.  No agent of change can expect to elicit a change response without demonstrating how that change should occur.  Want team members to display ownership?  Then you had better show ownership yourself – including showing vulnerability.  Want folks to drive hard to an objective?  Then you should show that you also are hard-working, yet open and accessible. 

What you can do to improve


Leading by example shares many things with knowing oneself and seeking self-improvement including both biases that keep us from being successful and corrective actions.  The most common cause for failure here is a failure to see ourselves through the eyes of those whom we are attempting to lead.  But the fixes are easy:

  • Perform 360-degree reviews, and ensure the survey ask the anonymous reviewer if you model the behaviors you expect of others.  Brace yourself here.  As a leader you are under a microscope and held to a different standard.  It only takes a handful of stumbles in an otherwise stellar performance for your team to believe that you are not setting the example.
  • Surround yourself with folks who speak truth to power (see know yourself above).
  • Find a good coach.  The right coach can in fact help you with each of the four principles above.  Do not be concerned that having a coach is some sort of stigma -even the best professional athletes have coaches to help drive them to superior levels of performance.  The trick is finding the right one.

Part 2 in our posts on leadership principles covers the 3 principles of team construction and interaction.

Need help with any of the principles above?  AKF Partners offers a full set of services for product and technology companies including organizational consulting and personal coaching.

 

Next: Leadership Principles for Engineering and Product Leaders - Part 2

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